A gritty, down-and-out debut novel from one of Croatia's “lost generation.”
A teenager from the provinces set out for the big city. She was to make a new life there, one filled with the success, love, and excitement that had been cruelly denied to her so far. But things didn’t turn out as planned. Instead of fulfilling her potential, she dropped out of college. Instead of achieving success, she found herself at a dead-end job. And, of course, she didn’t find love. After those “several lost years,” she has packed up her belongings and is heading home.
We have heard this story countless times, and yet it never fails to fascinate us. Who was the idealistic person who so urgently left home all those years ago? Who is the desultory person now trudging back home? How has the city changed the provincial, and how have the provinces themselves changed while she was away in the city? These and other questions surround the homeward journey.
The provincial in question is Dada, the red-haired, twenty-something Croatian who narrates Adios, Cowboy, an accomplished debut novel by Olja Savičević, the prize-winning Croatian poet and short story writer. Dada is returning from Zagreb—“the only quasi-city in the wasteland” of a country—to Split, her hometown on the Adriatic coast. Split is never explicitly named in Adios, Cowboy because Dada considers herself a resident of the “Old Settlement,” the ramshackle suburb where she grew up in a lower-middle-class family. The novel opens with Dada travelling home on a bus “with dirty windows,” and in a long descriptive section—energetically translated by Celia Hawkesworth—we see the decrepit landscape unfold before her eyes:
my hometown: nothing more than a vast rubbish dump, mud and olive groves, glorious dust… heavy metals in the air, excrement and pine woods, cats and slippery fish scales on the greasy slipway and the sea stretched out as far as November…. dwellings [are] stuck together with stone, cement, and bird droppings—with worms burrowing through the beams and mice nesting in them.
There are many such descriptions of squalor in the book, but it’s not just the landscape that has been so lovingly eviscerated. Dada feels that the physical toxicity of the Old Settlement has been soaked up by its social fabric, and as she introduces us to its denizens—the rowdy boys who spray paint gutters and abandoned buildings, the poor Gypsies who inhabit nearby slums, the high-strung women, “fierier than their weary husbands, [who] fight so that their tits gleam and their teeth and kitchen knives flash”—we can’t help but agree. One gets the sense that this tiny coastal town has been all but forgotten by history. Having gained little from independence—other than martyrs—and having been overlooked by economic and cultural progress since, the town and its residents have been left to stew in ferocious and suppressed energies.
After the descriptive opening, Adios, Cowboy shifts its focus to Dada's past and the reasons she returned home. Her personal narrative provides little respite. After the death of her father, Dada moved to Zagreb to attend the university there. But instead of completing her studies (her major is left unmentioned), she dropped out and found a job as a hack journalist, plagiarizing news reports for a website whose title could well describe her life: "Shit.com." She does find some happiness in a vaguely abusive relationship with a married man. “What kind of relationship was it?” Savičević writes. “As soon as I approached, he would shove himself into me. Lying, sitting, standing, kneeling, he’d throw me onto my elbows, lift me onto the wall, a table, a tree, filling me.” When family duty calls, however, Dada decides to abruptly end the relationship, quit her job, and return to Split.
It’s not just filial responsibility driving Dada home, however. There are also ghosts awaiting her there. Amidst the uniform sordidness of the Old Settlement, there was one person she cherished: her little brother, Daniel, a cheerful, pure, and almost angelic figure. Indeed Dada even describes him in cherubic terms:
Daniel was a boy the way boys are like those carved wooden angels that are supposed to guard your house or the Gothic ones with cheery expressions. They are free from either male or female sins, the only sunny, full-blooded creatures in church frescoes or in the free light above anorexic saints, hysterics and virgins in the side aisles.
As children, the two were inseparable, and Daniel is one of the few people she missed while away from home. Dada would love to meet him now, but for a slight problem: he died, under tragic and dubious circumstances, while she was away in Zagreb. Having suppressed her grief for the past few years, Dada now sets out to learn what happened and the second half of the novel revolves around this detective tale.
By day, Dada babysits with her drug-addled, soap opera-watching mother. By night, she visits the settlement’s shady bars, her enigmatic next-door neighbor, and the local gigolo in the hope of piecing together Daniel’s story. The novel's dramatic action might lie in this nocturnal narrative strand, but I was more drawn to the shabby domestic scenes and childhood reveries that unfold when Dada is simply plodding around her home amid the complex relationships she shares with her family and acquaintances, with her house, and ultimately with the most intimate aspects of herself:
My room is a box in a house of boxes. Above the room there’s a bathroom, so damp stains come through the fresh paint on the ceiling. The bed behind the low cupboard is a still smaller box. The next box is me. The smallest box, a boxlet, is my cunt.
Dada’s discoveries bring her little closure, but, in the process of detection, she is made to face dark facts about the Old Settlement, about the ways she has been shaped by it, and about herself. Indeed the relationship between Dada and the Old Settlement—between an individual and her hometown—lies at the heart of Adios, Cowboy. Savičević may employ conventional narrative modes—the detective story, the mock western, the email correspondence—but she always uses them as vehicles to further a subtle sociological inquiry that is woven into the novel’s language itself. Dada narrates Adios, Cowboy with a brash levity at odds with its deplorable events. She references countless western movies, breaks into absurd jokes—Hawkesworth does a particularly admirable job of recreating the book’s humor and conjuring its conversational tone—and digressions that have little to do with her story, none of which provide comic relief. To understand Dada we must understand her jokes, for humor is how she frames her relationship with the Old Settlement, and is the tool that allows her to both acknowledge and reject her roots.